Volume 7, Number 2 (Spring 2004)
ISSN 1094-902X

 

 

 

 

Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America. Edited by Rebecca Moore, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 216 pages. $49.95, cloth. $21.95, paper.

An important corrective has been issued to the record on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. In spite of the fact that the Temple and its agricultural mission were overwhelmingly African American, no book on the subject has ever taken as its primary object of inquiry the study of race issues or Black perspectives, religious or otherwise. The newly issued Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, breaks this trend with a wide-ranging study that rightly places this historical movement and moment in an African American religious context.

On November 18, 1978, over 900 Americans living in Jonestown, a communal settlement founded by Peoples Temple in Guyana, South America, killed other residents and themselves with a mixture of Kool-Aid and cyanide. Peoples Temple was founded in Indiana in 1955 by Rev. Jim Jones, a white man, then relocated to Redwood Valley, California in 1965, and expanded to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1970s, at which point it became a primarily African American organization; as many as 80-90% of its 3,000 members were black. Jonestown, the agricultural mission of Peoples Temple, was intended as a socialist communal settlement far from the racism and poverty of American life. Some 1,000 members of Peoples Temple moved to what many of them considered their “promised land” in 1977-1978. However, allegations of brainwashing, abuse, and poor living conditions in Jonestown prompted a November 1978 investigative visit by a U.S. Congressman, accompanied by journalists and concerned relatives. Residents were prepared for something like an invading force, bent on destroying the community they had worked so hard to create. Several Jonestown residents shot and killed the congressman and several members of his delegation as they attempted to leave. Shortly thereafter, the suicides and murders began. “We didn’t commit suicide,” Jones said in the final recorded words of Jonestown. “We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

All books about Jonestown labor under the implicit task of explaining how the deaths there could happen, how the movement arrived at its calamitous end. Since 1978, scores of books and articles have been written on the subject. The numerous popular titles range from sensational (Guyana Massacre) to confessional (Broken God) to reportorial (Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People) in tone. The scholarly literature includes more than a dozen books on religious, political and social aspects of Jonestown (several of which books were written or (co)edited by Rebecca Moore, an editor of the current volume). This is to say nothing of the many other books and articles on “new religious movements” and “cults” more generally, in which Jonestown almost always plays a significant role. As Mary McCormick Maaga has written, “In contemporary religious studies there is ‘before Jonestown’ and ‘after Jonestown.’ (Maaga, 1).” Jonestown has defined the study of “cults” or “new religious movements” (depending on one’s paradigm) in a way that no other organization or event has before or since.

Both the popular and the scholarly literature on Peoples Temple has been written mostly by and/or about white people. The introduction to the present volume says of the scholarly analysis, “While most of these treatments acknowledge that the majority of the members of this movement were African American, they do not go the next step to explore in a substantive way the implications of these demographics” (xiii). Jonestown did not go unnoticed by African American religious scholars and clergy at the time; two of the present volume’s chapters were originally papers presented at a 1979 national consultation on Jonestown, sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Conference of Black Churchmen. As Jonestown recedes more in historical memory, I suspect that scholars of whatever race see it less and less as an urgent or potentially fruitful area of study. Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, however, gives an indication of just how loamy the soil of Jonestown still is.

The book’s introduction briefly sketches the history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and identifies the lacunae in the literature which the book seeks to address: “The first assertion that can be made is that the Peoples Temple movement cannot be treated as if it were a white movement; the second is that it cannot be treated solely within the conventional constructs of NRM [New Religious Movement] theory. The editors undertook this project out of the belief that a full understanding of this movement requires its location within the disciplinary perspectives of Black Religious Studies” (xiii). Indeed, African American religiosity and race have largely been factored out of the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, rendering the movement and the deaths in some regards incomprehensible. By framing the book as they have, the editors make way for black religiosity and race to be factored back in, and the humanity of Jonestown’s people to be more fully restored.

The introduction and the first chapter act in tandem, arguing that the field of new religious movements does not accommodate black religious forms (as above), and that black religious studies does not accommodate nontraditional religious movements (as below). In “Peoples Temple as Black Religion: Re-imagining the Contours of Black Religious Studies,” Anthony B. Pinn challenges “the dominant theory of black religion,” which he sees as “too tied to a particular tradition -- and a rather limited range of this tradition’s various modalities -- to speak about the complexity and scope of black religious expression and experience” (5). The collective effect of the introduction and first chapter will be, one hopes, to create new space in each of these fields for the understanding of movements such as Peoples Temple.

C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s essay, “Daddy Jones and Father Divine: The Cult as Political Religion,” a reprint from 1980, seems to fall more clearly in the “cult” paradigm and hence serves as a counterpoint -- sometimes to useful effect -- for the book’s NRM-oriented editors. The essay’s central assertion is that the analytical category of “political religion” -- which they identify, after Apter and Bellah, as a movement which seeks “to turn what is finite into something ultimately meaningful and valuable” -- helps to shed light on the religio-political nature of Peoples Temple (42). I disagree with the authors’ conclusion that the “reintegration of previously differentiated spheres [religion and politics] into one total worldview” is what makes “modern cults like Jones’” so “alarming”—I don’t think such a reintegration necessarily eliminates pluralism. Still, their discussion of the mixing of worldly and ultimate concerns is a valuable analytical touchstone.

Another of the book’s three reprints, also from 1980, is Archie Smith, Jr.’s “An Interpretation of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church.” Dismissing popular psychoanalytic and “only in California” explanations as insufficient, he says, “black people’s involvement in the Peoples Temple movement can be seen as an attempt to make black religion relevant to their social, political, and economic condition” (51). Relevance is also a concern for J. Alfred Smith, the senior pastor of Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church. In a later chapter, “Breaking the Silence: Reflections of a Black Pastor,” Smith offers a searching discussion and a call to action on the ongoing “tragedy of profound and unforgivable silence” which “stops my brothers and sisters in the black clergy in the Bay Area from giving voice to the grief, to the sense of betrayal, and to the internal struggle to understand how we played a role in the success of Jim Jones in our midst” (139). Smith fairly and bravely wrestles with the crisis that the Jonestown tragedy forced among Bay Area black clergy.

Taken on its own, Smith’s essay might lead some readers to place undue blame on the supposed failures of Bay Area black clergy. The injustice of American racism that prompted the people of Jonestown to leave the country is a far better target, and one which, fortunately, is addressed in the following chapter, Muhammed Isaiah Kenyatta’s “America Was Not Hard to Find.” In this, the last of the book’s three reprints, Kenyatta says, with the rhetorical poetry of a sermon, “One of the Fathers Berrigan once wrote a poem, the title and refrain of which was ‘America is hard to find.’ I do not think America was hard to find for the nine hundred. They had found it and found it hopelessly hard” (163).

Some of the particular conditions they found hopelessly hard are explored in Tanya Hollis’s “Peoples Temple and Housing Politics in San Francisco.” Peoples Temple was headquartered, prior to the migration to Guyana, in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, which neighborhood had, in the preceding decades, undergone a wrenching process of urban renewal, or “Negro removal,” in the words of its community activist critics. Hollis has assembled perhaps the most concise assessment of the postwar social and political circumstances in which Peoples Temple came to prominence, and played, to devastating effect, a role in that community’s struggle for self-determination.

Two chapters exploring the use in Peoples Temple -- primarily by Jim Jones -- of African American rhetoric and traditions neatly complement each other: “Religion and Revolution: Politics and Meaning-Making After Black Power,” by Duchess Harris and Adam John Waterman, helps explain the context in which Jones’ revolutionary political rhetoric made sense. Similarly, in “Jim Jones and Black Worship Traditions,” Milmon F. Harrison goes far in showing how Jim Jones “chose to use patterns, meanings and understandings that were consistent with and therefore would resonate with large numbers of African American worshippers” (136).

Previous analyses of Peoples Temple have generally relied on vague statements about the predominance of African Americans in Peoples Temple. “Demographics and the Black Religious Culture of Peoples Temple,” by Rebecca Moore, is an extremely useful study of demographic data on Temple membership. Somewhat more controversial is Moore’s claim that “Peoples Temple was a culturally as well as racially black movement” (57). That Peoples Temple was a black church and that it was a culturally black movement are two distinct, but related, claims, and together they receive recurrent attention throughout the book. Lincoln and Mamiya elsewhere would disagree with, and J. Alfred Smith in his essay does disagree with the idea that Peoples Temple was a black church. Jones’s role as leader -- and the power and privilege he enjoyed as a white man -- deserves more explicit attention in this discussion than is afforded here.

The question of whether Peoples Temple was a church, even a black church, is reframed in Mary Sawyer’s artful discussion of “The Church in Peoples Temple,” the book’s last chapter. Sawyer, in the employ of California’s Lieutenant Governor, was charged with finding out “whether this group was in fact a real church” (168). What Sawyer has discovered, and relays here, is a “multi-layered movement” in which it was quite plausible that a “critical mass of African Americans might have preserved a black spiritual cosmos in the midst of white-orchestrated chaos and deception.” In short, it is possible that “nestled within the church façade of the larger movement was a real church,” people who maintained African American Christian traditions (171).

What relationships African Americans had in and to Peoples Temple is no idle question, but rather touches on important matters of responsibility, which in turn are central to the divide between the cult and NRM paradigms. Did Jim Jones coerce the people of Jonestown, step by step, into their awful fate, and so hold ultimate power? Or were all the adults of Jonestown, for whatever deceit and deprivation they may have endured, responsible for their own and their children’s deaths? If so, what precisely was the nature of their responsibility? For their part, the editors “reject the premise that African American members of Peoples Temple had no agency” (xiv). The matter is complicated, then, by specifically what forms of agency, power, and responsibility people of different races had. If Jones held primary power and responsibility, then was the massacre a monumentally racist crime perpetrated by a white man disguising himself with black political and religious rhetoric? To the extent that all adults in Jonestown had agency, what does this say about power and responsibility along racial lines?

I would have been interested to hear other voices here, perhaps one like that of Rev. Cecil Williams, the longtime pastor of Glide Church in San Francisco, and once a confidante of Jim Jones. Williams is quoted briefly by J. Alfred Smith in his essay, but absent here is the surging anger that Williams expresses in his 1980 autobiography, I’m Alive! in which he vents (among other things) his rage at Jones for wanting to be black, for his deceit, for his final betrayal of the oppressed whose cause he claimed to champion. Williams expresses horror that Jones, the putative leader, was among the last to die in Jonestown—he followed his people into death. Even more divergent voices such as Williams’ would have opened up the book’s conversation further.

The particular perspectives and concerns of African American women receive insufficient attention here, especially given that the membership of Peoples Temple was nearly half black women and girls. A womanist theological analysis of Peoples Temple and its cultural, political and religious context would have enriched the book tremendously. Such an analysis could offer a sustained discussion of black female members’ particular concerns and motivations. How did African American women and women’s movements influence Peoples Temple and its members? Why did black women join in such large numbers, and how did this compare to the demographics of other nearby churches? How did the culture of black women shape the direction of the Temple? How did African American women members relate to the white women who constituted a good part of the Temple leadership? These questions are worthy of substantial study.

The most notable absence here is the voices of African American members of Peoples Temple, especially overtly religious ones. There are some quotes scattered throughout. Of course, most of those who might testify are dead. Reconstructing their inner lives is, as with any act of history, an interpretive task. Letters, photos, diaries, affidavits, cassette tapes, home movie footage, and other contents of historical and personal archives are valuable but limited, their authenticity mediated by the passage of time, and by the pressure and duress under which these chroniclers may have documented their lives. And then there are the survivors -- people who escaped Jonestown, were away at the time of the deaths, had stayed in the U.S., or were never part of the Temple but lost family in Guyana.

Whether by neglecting or -- more often -- raising questions, the book indicates some possible directions for further research. Some of the most promising areas of study, in addition to those indicated above: a study of race relations in Peoples Temple; black and white members’ views on how they saw each other and their supposedly shared task of creating a new world; the appeal of black religious forms for white Temple members; how, in the years since 1978, the racial politics of Jonestown have ramified in survivors' religious lives. Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America is an insightful, provocative and useful assemblage of essays, a vital contribution to the literature in its own right. One hopes that, in addition, the book will have the happy effect of generating still more scholarship and—not least of all—making way for the voices of more survivors, especially African Americans, to find their way into print.

Paul VanDeCarr, San Francisco, California

 

Works Cited

Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Williams, Cecil. I’m Alive! An Autobiography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.


2004 The North Star. All Rights Reserved.